There are dozens of English-translated siddurim on bookshelves these days. Surely, you may think, we don’t need another one. But before you make up your mind, consider that the new one that has just come out is translated by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. Rabbi Sacks, who also wrote a commentary and introduction, has been a consistently brilliant source of insight into Jewish philosophy, Chumash, and other topics.
The new Koren Sacks Siddur features the chief rabbi’s signature style of sharing with the reader a compelling and intelligent perspective – in this case, obviously, on the siddur and the Jewish idea of prayer. For example, most readers (the siddur is geared to a modern Orthodox audience) may already know that prayer and the ancient service in the Beit Hamikdash are strongly linked. However, how many would make the simple but completely original argument that “sacrifice could not be less like prayer” because one was historically quite spontaneous and varied and the other rule-heavy?
One of the main points that Rabbi Sacks emphasizes, in both the translation and the commentary, is the infrequently-mentioned doctrine of prayer as song. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is in the end-of-mussaf prayer “Anim Zemiros,” where Rabbi Sacks translates the rhyming couplets as rhyming couplets in English as well.
The Jewish Press recently sat down with Rabbi Sacks to speak about what his siddur can accomplish, what he hopes to write next, and how his words sing.
The Jewish Press: Why do we need another English-translated siddur?
Rabbi Sacks: One of my beliefs about prayer is that the text should stay the same, but the melodies should change with every generation. Every generation needs language that speaks to it, to have a commentary that inspires it.
This is what we’ve set out to do with the Koren Sacks Siddur: to create a new translation that lets the words breathe a little, lilt a little, cascade a little, sing for this generation. And to add an introduction and commentary that do what no other siddur I have ever found adequately does – address important questions: What is prayer? What is it to pray? What is the journey of prayer? In the Koren Sacks Siddur, we’ve created a new translation to make prayer accessible and meaningful to this generation and the next.
Can one siddur do all this?
Not in and of itself. This Koren Sacks Siddur is part of a larger project including music, video, a website. For the siddur that I worked on in England, we made a CD with new liturgical music. I gave it to people who said it changed the whole way in which they pray. The Koren Sacks Siddur is the core of the project, the foundation.
How long did you work on the siddur?
I worked on the Koren Sacks Siddur for three years. It came about through a bit of serendipity. Koren Publishers’s CEO, Matthew Miller, read the British one, and asked me to work on an American version. (The American nusach is very different from the British: England follows Central European traditions; America follows Eastern European traditions.) I worked with Koren closely and beautifully. It was, and continues to be, a very happy marriage. And it was a pleasure – it’s a lot of fun to work with perfectionists.
The layout is very distinct. The Koren Sacks Siddur is the most beautiful siddur I’ve ever seen. The typography is gorgeous. Sometimes prayer is poetry and sometimes it’s prose. In this siddur, the prose reads like prose, and the poetry reads like poetry. The layout produces the subliminal effect of allowing you to feel the music of prayer. Prayer at its height is song. Prayer is a three-movement symphony.
As opposed to other translated siddurim, the Hebrew in this siddur is on the left-hand rather than the right-hand page.
Yes. You get used to it to right away. And it really works. Having the Hebrew on the left and the English on the right enables you to move seamlessly between the two languages and allows the page, and you, to breathe.
You’ve also added some customs for women.
Way back in history, women didn’t come to shul. The Altneu Shul in Prague, for example, was built without a women’s gallery. But times are different and the siddur needs to reflect this. So we included the feminine form of the prayer Modeh Ani and a Zeved Habas prayer upon the birth of a daughter and other things. It’s amazing that none of this was done before.
Are you planning any more translations of classical works?
Next in line is the Koren Chumash (a companion to the Koren Sacks Siddur), and with long life, Koren Machzorim. Koren also is bringing out a Kinnos Tisha B’Av.
You have many duties, and yet you’ve still published a dozen or so books. Where do you find the time?
I have a wonderful wife and a wonderful office. And I write the books in the summers instead of taking time off. My next book, Future Tense: A Vision for Jews and Judaism in the Global Culture, will be out soon.
Many readers do not necessarily consider rabbis to be graceful prose stylists…
Words sing. God created the material world with words. And we create social worlds with words, and, rachmana litzlan, we can destroy social worlds with words. That’s why Chazal were very careful about lashon hara and insisted on lashon nekiyah.
Nobody has ever made words of song in praise of God like Moshe in Devarim, Dovid in Tehillim, Yeshaya, like the books of Tanach. And Jewish prayer sings – something I hope I’ve brought out in this siddur.